The Royal Observatory and The Octagon Room Greenwich, Looking downhill towards the Queen's House

Watercolour of the Observatory from the roof of the what is now the Meridian Observatory painted by Christabel Airy, one of George Biddell Airy’s daughters. Airy was Astronomer Royal between 1835 and 1881 and lived on site with his family during that time, later moving to the White House on Croom's Hill, where he died in 1892. Christabel was born at the Observatory on 1 March 1842, and remained there until her father retired when she and a sister also moved to the White House and herself died there on 8 June 1917. She never married, worked for a time as Honourable Secretary of the Greenwich Dispensary in Nelson Street and was involved in other good works.

The drawing shows Flamsteed House and the Courtyard as it was in 1872 and includes at the very bottom the Shepherd Gate Clock. In the distance is the Queen’s House, the Naval College and the factories across the Thames. This drawing is not only interesting for what it tells us about the site for a specific year (1872), but for its place in the social history of the Observatory. Christabel was one of the younger of Airy’s nine children (of which three predeceased him) and spent almost her whole life on site. Unlike the boys, who were sent away to school, Airy’s daughters were taught at home, which happened also to be the Observatory. The detail shown of the meteorological instruments on the roof of Flamsteed House gives some indication of the level of understanding, interest and involvement she might have had with the scientific work of the Observatory.

There is one other Christabel Airy picture in the collection (PAF7613), painted seven years earlier, showing Observatory from the north west, with a religious quotation. The present watercolour shows more interest in the details of the scientific apparatus around the Observatory, and in the changing landscape of Greenwich. In this respect, the two pictures complement each other well, showing a development in Christobel’s relationship with the site. There are 20 other watercolours by Christabel Airy in the Greenwich Heritage Centre, Artillery Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

Object Details

ID: ZBA4306
Type: Watercolour
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Airy, Christabel; Christie, A. E. T.
Date made: 1872
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Overall: 460 mm x 690 mm x 40 mm

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